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OFLI “Out There” 2013: Tonight We’re Gonna (Star) Party Like It’s 1979!

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OFLI “Out There” 2013:  Tonight We’re Gonna (Star) Party Like It’s 1979!


By James Barnett

February, 2014



Figure 1  The late Dr. Carl Sagan.  He was a Chaco Pilgrim.  NASA Planetary Society image in the public domain.


Every year my club, OFLI (aka the “Off Fisher Lane Irregulars”) goes on a multi-day dark sky astronomy and outdoors adventure.  We call these trips “Out There” trips.  You can read about a couple of our prior adventures here on Cloudy Nights:



For 2013 nine OFLI-ites from three states piled into five vehicles and drove a cumulative 16,500 miles to arrive at a high desert canyon, roughly 6,800 feet in elevation at the canyon’s floor, during the tail end of the region’s monsoon season, to traverse 15 miles of bad dirt road, suffer two flat tires, and spend a little quality time together and with the heavens and antiquity.

Our destination was Chaco Canyon, or more properly Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwest New Mexico.  For more on Chaco, have a gander at the National Park Service website, here:


Beyond being located scores of miles from the nearest significant population centers, and offering dark skies for astronomy, Chaco has captured the imagination of professional and amateur astronomers alike for decades.  In 1977 an artist named Anna Sofaer volunteering on a project to categorize rock art for the Park Service, found herself atop Fajada Butte near midday on the summer solstice.

Anna noted three peculiar slabs leaning against a sandstone cliff face, and light filtering through the slits between the slabs illuminating the cliff wall beneath.

Anna noted that the “dagger” of sunlight projected onto the wall by the slabs neatly bisected the center of a spiral petroglyph pecked on the cliff wall.  Coincidence?  Nope.  The slabs-and-rock-art site on Fajada Butte is (or was) a sophisticated calendaring device, marking solstices and equinoxes precisely.  I say “was” because increased researcher visitation to the site since the 1970s eventually caused increased erosion leading  to slab shifting such that the device no longer accurately marks solstices and equinoxes.  Here is an excellent interactive flash model illustrating the operation of the site during its heyday:


Chaco Canyon has always been mysterious courtesy of the highest concentration of large-scale, finely-finished, multi-storied masonry structures in North America, but the discovery of evidence of advanced understanding of the cycle of seasons in relation to celestial phenomenon triggered a new era of scientific and archaeological investigation in the canyon.

There are two salient popular cultural references to Chaco that are of particular interest to amateur astronomers.  First, in 1980, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series featured a vignette on Chaco and several of its various celestial-architectural alignments, including the Sun Dagger site on Fajada Butte.  You can find that segment in Episode 3, The Harmony of Worlds.  A more recent television discussion of Chaco, and something of a reprise to Sagan’s late-70s visit, is Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe, Episode 3.

For me, Chaco has always had serious draw.  I vividly remember as a teen tuned into PBS seeing the odd subterranean circular structures of the Pueblo Bonito ruin from overhead in Sagan’s segment on the canyon and wondering whether it would be possible to visit the site and have a look for myself.  Since then I’ve made a few trips to Chaco solo, but this time around I shared the adventure with friends.

To this end, I’d like to dedicate this trip report to the sense of wonder our turtle-necked friend inspired in many of us when we were young.

Site Report Card; Gallo Campground.

Gallo OFLI camp above by doug and kate.JPG

Figure 2   Aerial view of OFLI basecamp in the group campsite, Gallo Campground, Chaco Culture NHP.  Chacra Mesa in the background.

Chaco Culture NHP only has one campground, Gallo.  In the past, including our September 2013 visit covered in this report, individual campsites were available on a first-come-first-served basis.  This can be particularly terrifying given that one might have driven upwards of 15 hours a day for multiple days to get to Chaco, only to be turned away and told to try again the next day.  This trip we were able to reserve the group campsite in advance, so the sense of terror of the unknown that used to accompany a drive to Chaco was absent.  Now I’m told that the all campsites can be reserved online.  This is a change for the better given the remoteness of the Park.  

I introduced the concept of a “site report card” after the 2012 trip to California’s White Mountains.  The idea is to correlate the dark sky sites we visit with the typical suburban club site (such as our site at the Farm in Sonoma), so that readers who may be thinking about a visit to one of the sites covered in an OFLI trip report have a way of comparing each site’s suitability for astronomy using a standardized yard stick.

You remember report cards.  Those 5” x 8” prophets of doom that showed up in your mailbox a few times a year and heralded parental scolding, praise or a mix of both?  They’re back!  Using a 60-point scale covering 6 categories worth 10 points each, and designating conditions at the OFLI home site, the Farm, in Sonoma, California, as a mid-pack 30/60 (i.e., “5s” in each category) baseline, I’ll grade Gallo Campground in Chaco Canyon using the same scale.

(i)  Report Card for the OFLI Home Site, “the Farm”:

Overall Grade:  30/60


Figure 3  OFLI's Farm site in suburban Sonoma County, California.  Typical of most orange zone observing sites; better later when businesses close, better near zenith away from pronounced light domes.

Darkness: 5

Basis for the rating:  The Farm features a NELM in the 5s; low 5s from nightfall to about 11pm and then mid to high 5s once local businesses in Vallejo and Sonoma close and douse their lights.  It has two sizeable light domes, one in the southeast from Vallejo and another in the north from Sonoma.  There are no street lights along the graded gravel lane next to the site, and for the most part neighbors have minimal outdoor lighting.

Transparency: 5

Basis for the rating:  Sonoma Valley, nestled between Sonoma Mountain (a misnomer; it’s a “hill” in reality) to the west and the Mayacamas range separating the Napa and Sonoma Valleys to the east, is fairly low meaning that we look through a significant airmass.  Coupled with its near-sea-level elevation, it is a heavily agricultural area that can be somewhat dusty in warm months and smoky from wood heating fires in cooler months.  These factors result in an appreciable amount of extinction as well as a fair amount of scatter much of the time. 

Moisture/Dew Propensity: 5

Basis for the rating:  The Farm occupies approximately 13 acres and is bisected by a seasonal creek.  Even on the driest summer nights observers will experience at least some moisture on flat surfaces.  In other seasons, moisture is more prevalent and on the worst of nights thick tendrils of ground fog can turn Dobsonian primary mirrors into fish-bowls within minutes.  It is wise to pack dew suppression tools year-round at the Farm.

Seeing: 5

Basis for the rating:  Being positioned between two ridges, typically seeing at the farm isn’t bad.  Most nights we’ll experience no worse than Pickering 5 to 6 seeing with Pickering 7 being more common, though much better than Pickering 8 is rare.  I suspect the valley’s tendency to trap thick blankets of stale air helps stability, but the thermals off of the slopes on either side of the valley slowly churn the air pocket from the edges, preventing complete stagnation. 

Wind: 5

Basis for the rating:  The farm doesn’t get much wind at night.  In fact, I can recall only one session out of scores where the wind was a bother.  Not much to say here other than I never worry about wind when heading over the hill to the Farm for a session.

Horizons: 5

Basis for the rating:  The Farm has good horizons to the west, northwest, and east.  The northeastern horizon is slightly obstructed by an old walnut tree.  The southeastern, southwestern and southern horizons are slightly obstructed by a stand of eucalyptus trees.  The obstructed portions of the viewing are cut into the obstructed horizons no more than about 20 degrees, so effectively they block thick 2x airmass zones, limiting the site quality damage taller obstruction zones would inflict.

(ii)  Report Card for Gallo Campground, Chaco Culture NHP:

Overall Grade: 43.5/60

Gallo Camp reub pano.jpg

Figure 4  Panorama of OFLI's Gallo Campground basecamp site.  A series of camp life pictures follows to give you a better flavor for the setting.

Gallo Doug Big Bino Dob.JPGGallo Jeff Obsession 15.JPG

gallo Doug and Cliff reub.JPGGallo Kate and Tia reub.JPG

Gallo me reub.JPG Gallo Tia and Reuben with Teeter 10.JPG

Gallo chef Tom 2.JPGGallo setting up scopes.JPG

Gallo trucks fajada daniel.JPGGallo Daniel 8 Bino Dob.JPG

Gallo hoping for better weather.JPGGallo doug and kate.JPG

Darkness: 7.5

Basis for the rating:  Gallo Campground is decently dark, though due to a lingering regional monsoon season, it was more humid than during past visits, and the moisture in the air tended to increase the size of the light domes and perhaps scattered light from fracking operations in the general area.  Of course, the light domes themselves may have grown since my last visit.  On popular light pollution maps available on the internet, Gallo is located in a gray zone.  Are there darker sites in the United States?  You bet.  But not that many.  

Transparency: 7.5

Basis for the rating:  As mentioned above, Chaco was much more humid than is typical for September, the legacy of an extended regional monsoon.  There was definitely much more water in the air than during my past visits, and that not only impacted darkness due to increased scatter, but also affected transparency negatively.   While the canyon is very high and extremely arid, like the rest of the southwest, it gets its annual rainfall all at once over a month and a half in late summer.  My recommendation is to plan your visit for early October to avoid the tail end of the monsoon and also the really gold weather that shows up in late fall and winter.

Moisture/Dew Propensity: 8.5

Basis for the rating:  Even with the lingering monsoon (we had 2.5 clear nights out of 5; we experienced one overnight heavy downpour and another late afternoon true howler of a storm, together occasional daytime sprinkles), none of us found the need to use active dew suppression.  Temperatures were mild, day and night, with only moderate swings (mid-to-high 80s in daylight and high 60s overnight).  Dew didn’t dare.

Seeing: 5

Basis for the rating:  Seeing wasn’t great.  No doubt the unsettled weather didn’t help matters on this front.  But do you drive two days to get to a dark sky site to look at double stars and planets?  Nah!  You can do that in your light polluted backyard.  The improvements to limiting visual magnitude due to the increased darkness are payment enough for suffering poorer than  

Wind: 7.5

Basis for the rating:  Overall the site was mercifully wind free.  Other than during storms, modest breezes occasionally graced the campsite. 

Horizons: 7.5

Basis for the rating:  The Gallo Campground is laid out in a rough mirror-image “L” shape following the natural contours of the side canyon wash in which it is situated.  The longer leg of the “L” runs NE-SW.  Our site was the group campsite located on the south side of the junction of the two legs of the “L”.  As such horizons were quite good all the way around, though the SE horizon most open and the NW horizon the shallowest due to relative proximity of canyon walls to the campsite.  Tent-only sites up the shorter leg of the “L” are likely darker and certainly more scenic, but likewise more obstructed due to a narrower canyon span.

Chaco is a solid dark sky astronomy site, but there are 24 hours in a day.  What are you going to do during the daylight hours?

Gallo Solar Geeks.JPG

Besides solar observing, I mean, you astronomy geek!

Come to Chaco Canyon (And Be Changed By It)!

Chaco is one of those rare transcendental places that you do not merely experience literally with your basic senses (I was there, I saw things, I did things, I left), but also expansively with your intellect.  The extreme contrasts that remain evident in Chaco despite the passage of centuries provoke even the most mundane personality to speculative wonder.  You will be forced to think.  The questions that will challenge you are “How?” and “Why?”  It is no coincidence that these are the Big Questions of the universe.

The greatest treasures we accumulate during our brief lives are our material possession but rather experiences, for each person’s collection of experiences are unique.  To use the Bucket List analogy, if visiting the Eiffel Tower Empire State Building is a 5-spot ($5 banknote), Chaco is most certainly a Benjamin ($100 banknote).  I’d even put Britain’s Stonehenge at a $20 bill to Chaco’s $100 bill.  There are few other places on Earth as sure to make you think hard about what you see and experience and then about life, the universe and everything.

In the most literal sense, Chaco is a shallow, high elevation, riparian canyon carved by the Chaco River, located in the southern Colorado Plateau.  In the Canyon, starting approximately 1200 years ago, an unknown prehistoric people raised massive multi-story structures of finely wrought masonry, constructed a system of arrow-straight roads radiating from the canyon’s center, established cultural and economic dominance or at least influence over an area encompassing thousands of square miles, traded luxury goods with the civilizations of Mexico thousands of miles distant, and developed a keen understanding both the solar and lunar cycles.  Then, around 1150 CE, they promptly disappeared, abandoning the cyclopean palace-temples they had constructed, expanded and remodeled over centuries, never to return.

Who were these people?  Why did they settle in such a harsh and inhospitable place as Chaco Canyon?  Why did they build the Great Houses?  Why did they leave?  What can I learn from this place?  These are the questions a visitor to Chaco’s lonely ruins cannot escape, and that’s what makes Chaco so special.

The Major Ruins and Other Sites of Chaco.

Chaco is a relatively big place.  Chacra Mesa forms the south wall of the canyon, with major breaks at Fajada Gap and South Gap.  North Mesa forms the north wall of the canyon and is relatively unbroken save for a few rincons.  The major archaeological sites in the canyon running from east to west are:  Wijiji, Fajada Butte, Una Vida, Hungo Pavi, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo Alto Complex, Casa Rinconada, Tsin Kletsin, Pueblo Bonito, Pueblo Del Arroyo, Kin Kletso, Casa Chaquita, the Petroglyph Trail, Supernova Pictograph and Penasco Blanco.  Many miles separate the easternmost from the westernmost, so you will be doing some driving as well as walking.  A loop road passes by several sites as well as the trailheads for the more distant backcountry sites.  There is another site (my second favorite ruin, in fact) that is within the Park boundaries, but is not accessible from inside the park (i.e., you have to drive out the south road, and then take a rough dirt road west along the park’s southern border before re-entering the park property to visit the site).  It is called Kin Klizhin.

I could go on and on about masonry and ceramic styles, phases of the Chacoan civilization as evidenced by changes in these stylistic metrics, etc., but that would be outside the purpose of this report.  The reason for submitting this (or any other trip report) is to make the reader curious enough to undertake their own investigation and (hopefully) visit.  I have a ~40 page copiously illustrated “Thinking Visitor’s Guide” I developed for use by trip attendees that goes into much more depth about the archaeology and archeo-astronomy of the place.  I would be happy to share that resource with you for the asking.  But for this report, other than a brief contextual description, I think I’ll let the myriad pictures taken by our crew speak for themselves…


Wijiji was the final Chacoan Great House constructed in the Canyon. It is unusual in that it is highly symmetrical, was constructed in a single short phase (uncommon for Chacoan architecture but common for McElmo architecture found in the Canyon), has virtually no midden mound and was therefore likely never actually occupied, and lacks the signature enclosed plaza with Great Kiva. It’s possible that the site was abandoned before construction could be completed.


Chacra Mesa forms the south wall of the canyon across from Wijiji. One of the oldest sites of sedentary human occupation in the canyon, Shabik’eschee Village, lies on a low shoulder of the mesa approximately one mile eastward of Wijiji. There is a large, isolated Great Kiva to the southeast of Wijiji, as well as a second isolated Great Kiva further eastward in the Canyon, near Shabik’eschee.


Along the north canyon wall immediately behind Wijiji is a modest panel of rock art featuring pictographs of fauna and a negative of a human hand. In crannies along the canyon and up side canyons near Wijiji are several small granaries. A summer solstice confirmation site (off limits to visitors) lies near Wijiji along the north wall of the canyon.


Here is a video of that event:




Wijiji itself offers a winter solstice confirmation site.  From the Exploratorium’s “Ancient Observatories” website (image and caption used with permission under the Exploratorium’s Use Policy which permits non-commercial use of digital assets):



Standing at the northwest corner of Wijiji, you can see the sun rise at the northern edge of a distant notch in the horizon, sixteen or seventeen days before the winter solstice. Over the course of the next sixteen or seventeen days, the sun seems to traverse the notch. Finally, on the morning of winter solstice, you can see the sun rise at the southern edge of the notch.”   © The Exploratorium,  www.exploratorium.edu


Wijiji in pictures:


Wijiji Under Clouds.jpgWijiji Back Wall.jpg


Fajada from Wijiji Trail.jpg

Wijiji window.jpgWijiji Masonry.jpg

Wijiji Notch.jpg

Fajada Butte.

Fajada Butte is the home of the “Sun Dagger” solstice and equinox calendaring site discovered by Anna Sofaer in 1977. The site consists of three stone slabs leaning against a south facing wall located near the top of the Butte. On the wall in the shadow of the slabs are two petroglyphs; a large and small spiral. On the solstices and equinoxes sunlight enters the gaps between the slabs and illuminates one or both petroglyphs in a particular manner.  The vintage image below is provided courtesy of the National Park Services and is in the public domain.


© The Exploratorium,  www.exploratorium.edu  Used with permission for non-commercial use.


The Sun Dagger site has been off limits to the public for several decades, however, even those restrictions have proved too limited to preserve the site. The increased professional archaeological traffic to the site since its discovery has cause accelerated erosion and slippage of the slabs such that the light daggers no longer bisect or frame the rock art on the solstices and equinoxes. 


Fajada Butte in pictures:


Fajada OFLI Lads GOOD.JPGFajada Butte.jpg

fajada dagger closeup.jpg

Figure 5   If you look closely you will see the slabs forming the Sun Dagger site in profile, leaning against the cliff face just left of center.

Una Vida.

Una Vida, located along the north wall of the canyon adjacent to the Visitor Center, is one of the oldest Great Houses in Chaco.  The site is largely unexcavated consisting of talus mounds, exposed, stabilized wall sections and the most engaging and sweeping views of Fajada Butte in the entire Park.

Nearby the site (off limits to you ordinary mortals) is the summer solstice confirmation site known as “Piedra del Sol”.  Much like the confirmation sites near Wijiji in the East Zone, this site provides a vantage point from which to anticipate the summer solstice by roughly 15 days.  When standing with your back against a large boulder’s northeast face which is marked with a spiral petroglyph, you can observe the sun rising at the tip of a distant pyramidal rock.  Here’s the June 3 apparition (I know nothing…I see nothing…):

june3.jpgeclipse.jpg  kinnahasbas.jpg

Also pictured above on the opposite, southern side of the pyramidal boulder is what is conjectured to be a depiction of the 1097 AD total solar eclipse that would have been visible from Chaco.  Finally, approximately 400 meters north of Una Vida is another off limits site called “Kin Nahasbas”.  It consists of an isolated, elevated Great Kiva surrounded by small room blocks, much like Casa Rinconada to the south.  Kin Nahasbas lies on the opposite side of the talus mound in the rightmost image above.

There is also a very attractive petroglyph panel on the canyon wall behind Una Vida.  A sign marks he trail to this panel.

Una Vida in pictures:


Una Vida Walls.jpgUna Vida Butte 2.jpg

Una Vida Vis Ctr Fajada.jpg

Una Vida Reuben reub.JPGUna Vida me laughing by kate.JPG

Una Vida daniel in shade tia.JPG  Una Vida wall and door.jpg

Una Vida Door Tom.jpg

Una Vida Rock Art 2.jpg

Una Vida Rock Art.jpg


Hungo Pavi.

Hungo Pavi lies at the intersection of Mockingbird Canyon and Chaco Canyon.  It is an unexcavated medium sized Great House and sits at the origin point (or terminus, depending on your perspective) of one of the Chacoan roads exiting the Canyon to the North.  A Chacoan staircase cut into the cliff behind the site marks the roadway’s entrance into the Canyon.  In the plaza area you can see a sand filled roughly circular depression marking the location of the plaza-enclosed Great Kiva, a hallmark of Chacoan architecture.  Like Una Vida a mile eastward of Hungo Pavi, this site presents an excellent prospect of Fajada Butte in the distance.

Hungo Pavi in pictures:

Hungo Pavi Trail.jpgHungo Pavi Walls 2.jpg

Hungo Pavi Walls 1.jpg 

Chacoan Stairs Hungo Pavi.jpg

Chetro Ketl.

In many respects Chetro Ketl is one of the most unique Great Houses in the Canyon.  It is the largest Chacoan Great House by area, covering 23,400 square meters (about 5.7 acres) and underwent almost continuous remodeling and expansion during its occupation period.  Most other Chacoan sites were developed in phases with marked construction hiatuses in between.  Chetro Ketl has an architectural feature that, together with other finds in the Park (including macaw feathers and skeletons, cacao residue on ceramic interiors, copper bells, a lone skull with filed teeth, sea shells, evidence of widespread, systematic cannibalism and most recently some pyramid-like mounds along South Mesa) has fueled speculation that Chaco was heavily influenced by Meso-American cultures far to the south.  In the case of Chetro Ketl, the key “Mexicanist” feature is a masonry colonnade.  Chetro Ketl has one, though it was bricked in prior to the sites abandonment.  No other Chacoan structures do.  A colonnade is a long series of columns joined at the top.  It is a common feature of ancient Greek and Egyptian architecture.  It is also a common architectural feature of ancient Meso-American cultures like the Maya and Toltec.

Chetro Ketl in pictures:

Chetro Ketl 1.jpgChetro Ketl Back Wall.jpg

Chetro Great Kiva.jpgChetro Great Kiva 4.jpg

CK Colonnade 2.jpg

Chetro Ketl Tower Kiva.jpgCk Clouds of Stone.jpg

Pueblo Bonito.

This is it.  The most thoroughly excavated, stabilized and studied Chacoan Great House of them all.  By room count (though not by area) this is the largest of the Great Houses, having some 800 rooms at its peak and towering 5 stories above the canyon floor.  Until the mid-1800s Bonito was the tallest manmade structure ever constructed west of the Mississippi.

It is your chance to get up close and personal with all things Chacoan, from examples of every phase of Chacoan masonry, to the plaza-enclosed Great Kiva, T-shaped doorways, corner windows and intact, exposed wooden beam ceiling structure, it’s all there for your exploration.  Even as a ruin the size and scale of this building is awe-inspiring.

Pueblo Bonito is also the site of the richest grave-goods finds in North America.  In the oldest portion of the building, early excavators discovered several burials beneath the floors of certain rooms.  Grave goods included massive caches of turquoise, turquoise and jet figurines, elaborately decorated flutes, tall cylindrical pottery containers (later discovered to have contained cocoa), scarlet and military macaw feathers and skeletons, and copper bells imported from Mexico to name just a few.

Recent scholarship has uncovered a residency pattern for Bonito.  Just as the structure is cardinally aligned with its rear wall running east-west and its D-shaped structure bisected by a north-south wall, it also appears to have been inhabited by different groups in the east and west quadrants.  Only the oldest parts of the structure show signs of long term, continuous habitation, with marked differences between the materials left by east side and west side populations.  For example, only one side had scarlet macaw remains and artifacts and cocoa, leading researchers to speculate that there may have been a clan-based system in the Canyon.  Half of Bonito was occupied by the elite of Scarlet Macaw Clan and the other half by elite of a different clan.

As further corroboration of the clan-based organization, luxury goods in the form of scarlet macaw feathers and skeletons, and cocoa-residued cylindrical pots have been found in certain of the humble, crude small house ruins across the canyon from Bonito adjacent to the Casa Rinconada Great Kiva.  Homes of the Red Macaw Clan rank and file?

As you wander Bonito’s hallways and passages, you’ll eventually come upon the northeast corner of the structure and discover that it appears to have been obliterated by a rock fall.  In 1941, a large detached column of sandstone along the cliff face behind Bonito collapsed, burying a portion of the building in rubble.  This column was dubbed “Threatening Rock” appropriately enough.  The Chacoans were well aware of the threat, and had stabilized the base of the column with masonry walls and wooden support beams.

There is also no doubt that the Chacoan’s believed in the connectedness of their sacred sites in the Canyon.  In addition to line-of-sight alignments between Great Houses as well as between Great Houses and distant geological features, there is an intriguing depiction of Pueblo Bonito on Fajada Butte near the Sun dagger site.  Image courtesy of The Solstice Project, non-commercial use permitted.

PB on FB.jpg

Pueblo Bonito in pictures:

bonito doorways reuben.JPGPB corner window.jpg

PB Keyhole door.jpgPB Jeff Explores.jpgPB back wall 2.jpgPB Kate by doug.JPG

Pueb Alto Bonito Overlook 1.jpg

Casa Rinconada.

There are a few different flavors of kivas in Chaco.  There are small, subterranean, often boxed-in “kin kivas” (every ruin has these), multi-story, also boxed-in “tower kivas” (Chetro Ketl, Kin Kletso, Penasco Blanco and Kin Klizhin had these) and “Great Kivas”.  Great Kivas are great because of their size.  Unlike kin and tower kivas, which might hold tens of people, Great Kivas have the capacity to hold hundreds of people.

In Chaco, there are two types of Great Kivas.  Those enclosed within the plazas of several of the Great Houses like Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl, and those located either in isolated locations near but not too near to other important Chacoan sites, like excavated and stabilized Casa Rinconada and unexcavated isolated Great Kivas near Fajada Butte, Wijiji, Shabik’eschee, Kin Nahasbas and on the mesa with Penasco Blanco.

Casa Rinconada is the largest of the excavated Great Kivas, though preliminary measurements of the depressions for the Wijiji isolated Great Kiva and the Penasco Blanco isolated Great Kiva suggest that they may have been as large as or even larger than Rinconada.

Common features for a Chacoan Great Kiva include:  (i) fine encircling masonry, (ii) a perimeter bench, (iii) wall niches and crypts, (iv) a raised masonry fire box, (v) four pits for massive roof support beams, (vi) raised masonry foot drums and (vii) cardinal alignments with northerly antechamber and doorway.

To the east of Casa Rinconada is an excellent example of a Chacoan staircase that connects to a roadway to Tsin Kletsin on the mesa above.

Rinc Chacoan stairs.jpg

The Casa Rinconada Great Kiva is surrounded by numerous small house sites.  The Great Kiva itself is precisely cardinally aligned N-S-E-W and features one potential celestial calendaring feature, described below.  The following images show the north T-shaped entrance doorway, perimeter bench and numerous wall niches.

At sunrise on the summer solstice, sunlight enters a window on the east side of the kiva and illuminates a niche above the bench on the opposite wall. 

Here’s a QuickTime movie illustrating the event:


The alignment with the solstice is debated, however, because there is some evidence that for at least part of the occupation period for the site, the window may have been blocked by an exterior structure.

Rinconada in pictures:

Rinc Great Kiva good 2.jpg

Rinc small houses.jpgRinc OFLI Candid Contemplation.jpg

Rinc Great Kiva good 1.jpg

Rinc Tom and Doug.jpgRinc Pueb Alto View.jpg

Tsin Kletsin.

Tsin Kletsin is a small, but well-built, unexcavated Great House that is mostly McElmo style in masonry, with an occasional banded wall segment mixed in, but save for the absence of a Great Kiva in its plaza, it has a very Chacoan D-shaped form.  It is a true synthesis of the architectural styles of the northern and southern Anasazi traditions.

Tsin Kletsin’s perch atop South Mesa provides great views of distant Pueblo Alto across the Canyon, and Casa Rinconada and Pueblo Bonito in the Canyon bottom in between.  Looking outward to the south, you may also be able to spot Outliers Kin Klizhin just below South Mesa and Kin Ya’a in the distance near Crownpoint.  Perhaps the best part of a visit to Tsin Kletsin is the walk down the back side of the mesa and back into the Canyon via a portion of the Great South Road.

Tsin Kletsin in pictures:

Tsin K OFLI approach good 1.jpgTsin K OFLI arrives.jpg

Tsin K Kiva.jpgTsin K Walls 2.jpg

Tsin K midden look no touch.jpg Tsin K shards.JPG

Tsin K Shhards and Lithics.jpg Tsin K wall 4.jpg

Tsin K walk to south gap.jpgTsin K s gap trail dan reub and jeff.JPG

Tsin K south gap descent.jpg

Pueblo Del Arroyo.

Pueblo Del Arroyo is a well-excavated and stabilized medium sized Great House located near Pueblo Bonito adjacent to Chaco Wash.  The Great House includes two unusual features.  First, the enclosing plaza lacks a Great Kiva.  Second, the structure incorporates a puebloan architectural structure unique in Chaco and rare in the southwest though typically found in the Animas River region to the north (near the modern day town of Farmington, NM); a “tri-walled kiva”.

Another interesting detail to look for is the paradoxical positioning of an upper Chacoan masonry wall on top of a lower McElmo masonry wall.  What makes this highly peculiar is the fact that most McElmo construction in the Canyon occurred at a relatively late date in the Canyon’s occupation.  Chacoan core and veneer construction is generally considered to be older than the simpler, less elegant McElmo style.  Clearly, though, if a Chacoan core and veneer sits on top of a McElmo wall segment, that particular McElmo construction must have pre-dated the Chacoan construction.  Del Arroyo is another Chaco site where macaw feathers and skeletons were found.

Del Arroyo in pictures:

Pueb DA tri-wall Kiva 2.jpgPueb DA walls 3.jpg

Pueb DA door.jpgPueb DA Keyhole.jpgPueb DA filled keyhole door.jpg

Pueb DA walls 2.jpg

Kin Kletso.

Kin Kletso is a 2-story McElmo Phase Great House constructed late in the Chacoan period.  It is a compact rectangle of massive yellow sandstone blocks with several enclosed or blocked-in kivas, including a tower kiva. 

This site was excavated and stabilized in the 1950s.  Archaeologists discovered a profusion of turquoise and other beads leading to the conclusion that the site was used primarily as a workshop for jewelry making.

Like other sites in the Canyon, Kin Kletso is not without its own celestial event alignments.  The second story of the tower kiva was aligned with a nearby boulder, and as viewed from the top of the kiva the sun would sit in a notch on the side of that boulder approximately 15 days prior to the winter solstice, like so:

Kin Kletso Winter Solstice marker Dec8.jpg

Kin Kletso in pictures:

Kin Kletso 1.jpg

Kin Kletso cleft to Pueb Alto.jpg

Pueblo Alto Complex.

Pueblo Alto is a large Chacoan Great House that lies at the terminus of the Great North Road atop Chaco’s North Mesa.  Getting there is half the fun; there’s quite a climb up an ancient trail in a crevice behind Kin Kletso.

The Great North Road runs roughly due north from Chaco past Outliers such as Pierre’s Ruin (El Faro), Halfway House Ruin, Twin Angels Ruin, through Kutz Canyon and, presumably on to Aztec and Salmon Great Houses in the North.  The Great House is quintessential Chacoan complete with core and veneer walls, an enclosed plaza and cardinal alignment with a back wall running east-west.  It lacks only a Great Kiva. 

Pueblo Alto is famous for its enormous midden heap full of shattered pottery, most of it manufactured outside of the Canyon and likely destroyed for ritual purposes.  The midden is roped off but is visible to the southeast of Pueblo Alto.  The ruin’s vantage high atop North Mesa also allows line of sight viewing of Una Vida to the east, Tsin Kletsin to the south and Penasco Blanco to the southwest.

Pueblo Alto is also famous for mythological reasons.  It has the nickname “Gambler’s House” and is the traditional home of an evil wizard who rode on the back of a great reptile and enslaved the local population by defeating them in games of chance.  As payment of their gambling debts, he required that they serve as his labor force for the construction of Chaco’s Great Houses and provide him with turquoise which he coveted above all.  The Gambler is the brother of the treacherous witch known as “She Who Totally Dries You Out” who by tradition haunted Fajada Butte and Una Vida.  The Navajo as well as many of the modern Pueblo peoples of the southwest have variations of the Gambler saga.  To the Navajo the Gambler is called “Noqoìlpi”, and is described as having a “hooked nose”.

Pueblo Alto is flanked by a small McElmo period Great House, known as “New Alto” to the west and another unexcavated late-period Great House that is little more than a talus mound of worked masonry, called “Rabbit Ruin” to its north.  A masonry wall running several hundred meters connects Pueblo Alto to New Alto.

Pueblo Alto in pictures:

Pueb Alto Ascent 1.jpg

Pueb Alto Ascent 2.jpg

Pueb Alto cleft sun.jpg Pueb Alto pecked basin GOOD.jpg

Pueb Alto trail Jeff Daniel.jpgPueb Alto trail south gap view 1.jpg

Pueb Alto buried kiva and south gap.jpg

Pueb Alto masonry Type 3.jpg Pueb Alto masonry Type 4.jpg

Pueb Alto walls.jpg

Pueb Alto approach 1.jpg Pueb Alto evidence of burning.jpg

Pueb Alto New Alto walls 1.jpg

Figure 6  World famous Jackson Staircase located along the North Mesa Loop Trail near Pueblo Alto.

Casa Chiquita.

There’s really not much to say about the “Little House”.  It is a small McElmo style ruin constructed very late in the Canyon’s occupation, and marks the beginning of the Petroglyph Trail. 

Petroglyph Trail.

The Petroglyph Trail features approximately a mile and a half of pre-historic and historic petroglyphs as well as some vintage graffiti.  Keep your eyes peeled.  Look carefully at the backs of boulders along the trail and along the cliff face.  There are examples of both Chacoan and Navajo rock art.



Bonus points for anyone who spots the Spanish signature from the 1500s left by one of Coronado’s soldiers when that expedition passed through the canyon.  Double bonus if you also spot a scrawled Anglo note left by a cattle drover advising a compatriot that the author couldn’t wait any longer because he couldn’t “get no feed” in the canyon.

Supernova Pictograph and Penasco Blanco.

Penasco Blanco along with Pueblo Bonito and Una Vida, is one of the oldest Great Houses in the Canyon.  It diverges from typical Chacoan architectural norms in a number of respects, however.  Foremost are its ellipsoidal or lenticular shape and Great Kiva located outside of the enclosing wall of its plaza.  The site is mostly unexcavated with a ring of stabilized Chacoan banded core and veneer masonry walls poking above mounds of mixed windblown sand and jumbled cut stone blocks.  The vast dimensions, unusual shape, extreme antiquity, remoteness and difficulty of reaching this Great House make it my favorite in the Canyon.  It is also an excellent place to spot potsherds among the rubble and sand.  The route to Penasco Blanco is a demanding one.  After the respite of the rock art galleries along the Petroglyph Trail, you must cut across the Canyon, including a wet fording of Chaco wash.

Penasco B potsherds (1).jpg chaco wash1.jpg

Normally this isn’t a big deal, but if there has been a thunderstorm within a couple of days prior to the crossing, it can be quite treacherous and in fact the Park Service often closes the trail during periods of storm activity for safety reasons.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Chaco without at least one life-altering baptism in the wash.  Or three.

Penasco chaco wash embarrasment rich tia.JPGPenasco Chaco Wash baptism.JPG

Penasco chaco wash bathing.jpg

Crazy kids.  But whatcha gonna do?

Once across the wash, it is a short hike to the base of West Mesa.  The ruins are up top, but before you undertake the steep climb to the ruins, you pass near the famous “Supernova Petroglyph”.  The artwork is thought by some to depict the 1054 supernova in Taurus that left behind M1, the Crab Nebula.

Penasco supernova sign.JPGPenasco supernova 2 Good tia.PNG

After enjoying the painting, climb a switch-back trail up to the top of the cliff to see Penasco Blanco.

PBlanc door.jpgPBlanc up canyon to Bonito.jpg

The image on the left shows Penasco Blanco’s “keyhole doorway” more likely a partially collapsed “T-shaped” doorway.  The image on the right shows the view from Penasco Blanco back eastward along the Canyon in the direction of Pueblo Bonito.  Below are images of a buried kin kiva and the view north and east out of the Canyon where Chaco wash exits and joins Escavada Wash.

PBlanc buried kiva.jpgPBlanc canyon exit.jpg


Once you’ve explored Penasco Blanco, you’ll have a very long walk back down the mesa, across the wash, and back to the trailhead parking area near Pueblo del Arroyo, followed by a 7 mile drive back to Gallo Campground.

Kin Klizhin Outlier.

Kin Klizhin is a small Chacoan Great House ruin featuring a tower kiva located in Kin Klizhin wash outside of the Canyon’s South Gap.  A Chacoan Road, the Great South Road, passed next to this site. 

You should visit Kin Klizhin for two reasons.  First, it is the closest publicly accessible Outlier to Chaco.  In fact, it is actually on Park land though it cannot be accessed by the public from within the Park.  Getting there requires a 12-mile drive outside the park along a rutted two-track (4WD not essential usually, but high clearance is a must). 


What could be finer than a little-visited Chacoan Outlier with a stabilized towering tower kiva spire and lots of potsherds in the vicinity?  




Why that’s simple!  An unspoiled Outlier with a gruesome, dark, terrifying past according to legend!

The second reason for visiting Kin Klizhin is to flesh out the Gambler legend.  By Navajo and some Pueblo traditions, Kin Klizhin was used by the wizard-king, the Gambler, and his minions as a site for human sacrifice, incineration and cannibalistic consumption of the flesh and souls of his used up human laborers.

The stories of a land are as important to understanding it as are physical and cultural features.  The lack of written language among the Chacoans make learning their stories almost impossible.  I say “almost” because fanciful old stories are often based on even older stories, which in turn are based on seeds of historical fact.  Was there a great wizard who rode a lizard, enslaved the local population to make them build Great Houses and then cooked and ate them when he had no further use for them?  Of course not.

But we do know that cannibalism among the Chacoans was a not uncommon constant through the entire period.  We also know that the year-round population of the Canyon was small.  There simply isn’t enough garbage in the trash mounds to account for a high rate of occupancy.  This means that those who lived in Chaco could not, alone, have built Chaco.  There are two ways to obtain and organize a massive labor force – honey or vinegar.  Honey would be some form of incentive, whether spiritual dispensation, the provision of knowledge and information or payment in the guise of tangible items of perceived value.  Vinegar would be compulsion by threat, brutalization or intimidation.

Could the dark tales and darker evidence of cruelty and violence be related to the “vinegar” that Chaco’s masters used to secure food and a labor force from surrounding communities?  And if so, could these fanciful myths of the evil Gambler be time-distorted echoes of past events of brutality, greed, compulsion and intimidation?



Chaco Canyon is a glorious and treacherous place.  In winter it is cold.  In summer it is blazing.  It is arid and distant from key resources, such as timber, used in the construction of the Great Houses.  If you were deposited in the southern Colorado Plateau and told to build a series of massive, cardinally aligned stone structures with no metallurgy, beasts of burden or even wheeled transport, Chaco Canyon would have been near the bottom of the list of places you would have considered erecting your cities.  The Park is accessible by either of two routes.  Both traverse many miles of bad dirt road.  Even today, getting into and out of the canyon isn’t a cakewalk.

Flat Tire south road.jpg

North Road threatening skies daniel.JPG

In fact, my brand spanking new Dodge truck, with even newer all-terrain tires also got a flat on the way in, in almost the same spot as Tom and Cliff got their flat, only a couple of hours earlier.  As a testament to the kind of people OFLI attracts, I want to express my profound thanks to both Tom and Cliff, who, instead of gallivanting to Pueblo Alto and Penasco Blanco with the rest of us, embarked on a two-state, full day search for a matching replacement tire for my truck.  Cliff replaced the four tires on his truck in Farmington, but instead of putting on an unmatched cheapy on my rim like I suggested when they set out (my fancy 4-wheelin’ tire was destroyed and unsalvageable) Tom and Cliff drove all the way to Colorado to find a Firestone dealer that had an exact match in stock.

No two of us are alike.  Not professionally, spiritually or politically, but know what?  We still form a tribe.  Tom, Cliff, Daniel, Tia, Kate, Doug, Reuben and Jeff, thank you all ten-thousand times over for sharing this adventure with me.  The rest of you, be good to one another, and by all means assemble a handful of friends and get “Out There”.  Chaco awaits.

Except as noted all images belong to the author and his OFLI club mates.  If you have questions about Chaco, feel free to ask.  I am more than happy to share OFLI’s “Thinking Visitor’s Guide” as well as assist you in your planning.  For every single thing you see in this article, there are at least ten other things omitted.  This barely scratches the surface.  The nearly non-existent waters of the canyon are nonetheless deeper than any ocean.  You could spend your entire life wandering the rincons and mesas and still miss important things. 

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Figure 7  Why yes, Virginia, that *is* a vertical rainbow next to Fajada Butte.  Just another day in Chaco.


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